Last night I loaded up the Raleigh 20 with instruments and alcohol and headed out to a friend’s birthday party to play a few tunes. The instruments of choice were the Republic resonator mandolin and my beloved Sandner waldzither-to-cittern conversion. The beer of choice was Muskoka Summer Weiss.
The 3-speed R20 performed its job as beast of burden with aplomb, it’s zippy maneuverability undiminished by the low-slung load. At the party guitars, whistle, fiddle and recorder were also present. Tunes were played, songs were sung (not by me!) and beverages were sipped. The post-midnight ride home was warm, quiet and peaceful. I coasted through a group of muted late night revelers in the Mill Creek ravine, seeming to amuse them with my helmet light. I do love fair weather night riding, one of the great things about the approaching summer.
I had great hopes for the Sunday afternoon busk. I’d be playing celtic music on St.Patrick’s day for a crowd of possibly inebriated fans. Disappointingly, the crowd response was lackluster and though I left with more cash than I arrived with the total was nothing to write home about.
As I didn’t take any photos at the busk to use in the bog I recorded one of my busking sets when I got home. Only one take,so not perfect (but that describes my playing when busking). I was struggling through computer problems when editing the video so the resolution is not what it should be, but I have no energy to fix it. Because I’m a contrary sort, the tunes are a mix of Scottish and Irish despite being for St.Patrick’s day.
The tunes start slow (sort of) and get fast. It’s a nice long group to play as the crowd flows past. Played on my Flood-Tone mandolin made by American luthier Thomas Flood.
Space Available March – Lord Seaforth Strathspey – Walker Street Reel – Humours of Tulla Reel – The Banshee Reel – Temperance Reel
At this time of year most of my riding is night riding as only 7 1/2 hours currently separate sunrise and sunset. When I do find myself pedaling in the sunlight the unaccustomed light blazing off the snow is blinding.The prospect of lengthening days is a good reason to celebrate the upcoming solstice.
A couple of weeks ago I set out to a gathering celebrating my friends’ 20th anniversary. I brought my cittern, mandolin and bodhran with me as there is always music to be played at their parties. The playing was varied and enjoyable with other musician’s playing guitar, harp, pennywhistle, irish flute, recorder and banjo. I had a chance to pick a few tunes on the banjo, a 1920’s short scale Triple X with the original skin head: fun and fast playing.
The cycling was gorgeous, as winter night riding can often be. The temperature was a tolerable -13C and there were great fat flakes of snow falling through the crisp air. I stopped on the High Level ridge to take a few pictures of the well lit adjacent LRT bridge. I also took a few rare winter cycling self photos. Riding a bike one-handed, in the snow, over a bridge, in the dark with delicate musical instruments on my back. What could go wrong? Happily, nothing did and it was a lovely ride to end the evening.
This blog has been pretty quiet on the busking news for the simple reason that there ain’t been much happening. The football season is over and the NHL is locked in a prolonged contract dispute. Those are my busking bread and butter. However, there have been a few big concerts at Rexall place lately. The Chili Peppers played the arena two nights in a row and the first night was a sold out show. I was able to busk the first show and it was pleasantly lucrative. That was nice.
The big one was last week: Paul McCartney played sold out shows on two consecutive nights. He’d never played in Edmonton before and the city was abuzz. As musical celebrities go they don’t don’t come bigger than Sir Paul. I think that most people regarded this as a once in a lifetime opportunity as he is not likely to make an appearance here again. And for your humble blogging busker there could scarcely be a better crowd to play.
On the night of the concert I was pretty tired from a hectic day at work. On the way home I detoured through downtown to stop at ETS Customer Service and renew my busking permit for the upcoming month. As I approached the MacDonald hotel there was a lot of activity on the street. There were police cars blocking all lanes of traffic and and more than a few camera crews. A little convoy of black SUVs pulled out of the hotel parking lot and were followed by a police escort. McCartney on his way to the venue, I assume.
Once home, I barely had time to grab a small bite to eat before heading off to the LRT station for the busk. The walk to the station was a crisp one with the temperature at -15C. This would become a important factor later in the night. My busking compatriot was already installed and playing when I arrived. We moved directly into me playing melody and him accompanying on guitar and we’d continue this for all of the incoming crowd. As expected, the crowd was genial and generous, an excellent combination. The fans were also an early arriving crowd with the LRT disgorging trains full of concert goers long before the doors were scheduled to open. As a result an unusual thing happened. Often the outgoing crowd of a large event stalls to a standstill as the trains cannot transport sufficient volumes of bodies away at a rate large enough to keep the crowd moving forward. In my decade of busking in Edmonton this has never happened with an incoming crowd. Until McCartney, that is.
The incoming crowd backs up and stalls.
I’d never seen the like and my busking partner who as been at it far longer than I had not either. This is the drawing power of an iconic musical legend. Of course, this worked to our advantage as the crowd had no alternative but to listen our excellent ( in my opinion) instrumental prowess. Many people who I think would have otherwise passed us by took the time to chuck a few coins or bills in the hat.
Eventually the arena doors opened and the crowd began moving forward again. It was about this time that something special happened. A young woman stopped and asked if we were going to the concert. We answered that we were not. She said that if one of us was interested she had an extra ticket to the concert. She handed it to me and moved off into the crowd. I was still somewhat in my busking trance (try playing for hours for a cacophonous, serpentine crowd and you will know what this is) , bemused and not sure what had just happened. The ticket looked legit. Cool. Which of us would go?
For various logistical reasons, we decided that I’d be the lucky concert goer. I had to decide what I’d do with my instruments as there would be no room for them in the cramped arena seating even if I was permitted to bring them in. I decided to stow them in my friends car for the duration of the concert, something of gamble as -15C is not particularly friendly to instruments.
One of my two main busking implements. This instrument has seen a decade of hard strumming and picking in some unfriendly environments. It is scratched,scuffed and worn with a crack on one side. I felt safe in leaving it at -15c for a couple of hours.
We busked until the scheduled start of the concert, I stowed my instruments and raced into the arena. I was not well prepared for a public event in close quarters. I hadn’t had time to change out of my work clothes or shower before heading to busk. So be it. McCartney hadn’t yet taken the stage when I arrived at my seat high above the arena floor. Although I was almost high enough to jump onto the overhead catwalks I was a the end of the arena closest to the stage and had a good view. I was able to properly thank my benefactors at this time for the ticket.
The concert was great. I can’t claim to be any sort of fervent Beatles or McCartney fan, but Sir Paul put on a heck of a show and I was reminded of how many great songs he was associated with (I might have to learn Blackbird now.). He played for almost three hours (37 songs!) without an intermission. He was in fine form and he sounded just like Paul McCartney. His voice only sounded strained at a couple of points. Over the evening he played bass, guitar, ukulele, mandolin and piano. There was a good mix of Beatles, Wings and his solo material. He had the enthusiastic crowd in the palm of his hand. I didn’t have a decent camera with me so I as able to actually watch the stage unlike many others who spent a lot of the time staring at their little camera screens while recording the concert.
I stayed until the last official song of the show (Hey Jude) but then scooted out before the inevitable encores. I’d have liked to stay for them, but a working busker’s gotta busk. I ran down to get my instruments and settled in for the outgoing crowd. I had horrible tuning problems as my cittern warmed up from it’s stay in the frosty car. It had just stabilized when the station doors opened and the icy air accompanying the arriving crowd knocked it out of tuning again. I probably spent half the time either playing an out of tune instrument or else tuning it (10 strings to tune !).
All in all it was a great night and a busk to remember, with money earned and memories of a good show. I didn’t get to sleep until nearly 2am making my 6am alarm feel earlier than usual. Still, it was worth it.
Of the some 90,000 people who walked through the gates at this past weekend’s 33rd annual Edmonton Folk Music Festival a lot of them arrived by bicycle. Each time I was there the volunteer supervised bike lock up was jammed to capacity with bikes. One of the volunteers told me that there were 900 bikes in the lock up at that time and I have no idea if that represented the peak use. In addition to that, the streets surrounding the festival grounds were lined with bikes locked to every imaginable stationary object. I’d have stopped to take a few more pictures but I was afraid that somebody might sneak up and lock a bike onto me.
And, oh, the bikes! The variety was fantastic. This may be the hands-down champion Edmonton event for ogling bikes . There were humble bike shaped objects, swarms of nice new bikes and hosts of stylish vintage bikes. I regret that I am unable to offer more than a handful of photos as I was a man with a musical mission this weekend ( and I was also wrangling my energetic 4 year old son). However, I can report that that a good number of manufacturers, past and present were represented. To name but a few: Kona, Rocky Mountain, Trek, Norco, Giant, Raleigh, Nishiki, Miyata, Peugeot, CCM, Brompton, Surly, Marinoni, Bianchi, Arvon, Cannondale, Specialized, Bobbin, Pashley, Linus, Dahon, Kuwahara, Apollo, Devinci. These are just a selection that I can immediately recall. I know that there were more.
Bikes, bikes and more bikes!
Labyrinthine aisles of bikes.
Oh, there was also music. Although this blog has been almost exclusively about bikes I did originally intend to write about music as well. The festival runs for 4 nights and two days with six smaller session stages and one big main stage. That equals a lot of music to sample, scurrying back and forth between performances. Often, the great dilemma is to decide which one to attend. Sadly, my parental duties prevented me from spending every waking second soaking up music. Nonetheless I did hear some great performances and, as always, discovered many new artists. There were several concerts where the artists passed the goosebump test. That’s when the music is good enough to give you goosebumps on a hot summer day.
This is one of the “smaller” session stages. There are 4 bands up there. Usually they take turns playing but more often than not some spectacular collaborations take place.
Mainstage is hidden behind the big screen.That didn’t much bother me as I am usually not interested in the big name headliners that perform mainstage. For me, the real action happens on the session stages. You can somewhat see in this picture the natural amphitheater that results from having the festival on a ski hill.
Finally, my favourites this year, with few videos (although not from the Edmonton Folk Fest).
Martin Simpson. Spectacular fingerstyle guitar playing with both traditional songs and newer compositions. I have several instructional videos by Simpson and I really should buckle down to work and study them.
The Mairtin O’Connor Band. Top notch Irish trio: Fiddle, accordion and guitar. The guitar player Seamie O’ Dowd formerly played with Dervish and I had seen him play several times before. Absolutely excellent musicianship from all the players.
La Bottine Souriante. Iconic french-Canadian ensemble, once described as the “best band in the world”. This may be hyperbole but they are very, very good and you have to see them perform live to feel the energy of their music. I saw them perform once before a decade or so ago and they still deliver the goods. This video of clips is a good representation of their live show.
There hasn’t been much busking talk here lately for the simple reason that I haven’t been busking at all. This is the quiet time for big event busks. Hockey is finished for the season (at least as far as the Oiler’s are concerned) and football won’t start for a while yet. Furthermore, there haven’t been many concerts that fall on days that I am free to play.
Last night , I was able to busk the incoming crowd of the Johnny Reid concert. A lot of the time I don’t really know who the hell the performers are these days and I have to look them up on the internet to decide if the concert is worth showing up for. Wikipedia told me he was a country music singer with several Canadian hit songs. Hmm. It didn’t sound promising. If he’d had international hits I’d be certain of a big crowd. On the other hand, Albertans love their country music. A quick trip to Ticketmaster lad me to believe that the show was almost sold out. Yay!
Ticketmaster, you deceived me.
Although the crowd was smallish they liked our music and were fairly generous. This busk finally proved a theory that I have been forming for some time now. The Edmonton country music crowd likes tunes in major keys in 4/4 time. Marches and reels? Yes. Strathspeys? Somewhat. Minor keys, jigs, slip jigs? Not so much. Waltzes? Sure, but I only know one.
I rode the Raleigh 20 to the event. My idea was that it is small and I’d be able to take inside with me and not have it take up a lot of room. This worked like a charm. Although I plan to swap out the strange delrin headset bushing, on this occasion I was glad of the stiff steering as it compensated for the weight of the instrument case I was carrying. It was a pleasure to take the little bike out for a jaunt but I still need to tune it up a bit. One of the pedals fell apart on the way home. That’s alright though, because those original Raleigh ball bearingless pedals are awful and I was planning on replacing them, anyway. I’ll be writing more about that soon.
On Sunday night I pedaled off to play music at a friend’s Solstice party. The temperature was a pleasant -5Celsius, so I didn’t have to worry too much about the cold affecting the instruments. There had been a fresh fall of snow to cover the ice but I rode cautiously nonetheless as a fall would have been unwelcome. There were fiddles, recorders, guitars and some singing . I contributed mandolin, cittern and bodhran. One musician brought a bass recorder, which is a beast I hadn’t seen before. I had a very nice solitary ride home through the silent, empty ravine. I spotted a hare but didn’t succeed in getting a good photo.
When I started this blog I had intended the two main topics to be bikes & busking. Hmmm….come to think of it that might have been a good blog title. Dang! Somehow, the bike part has totally taken over. This is not surprising, considering how much of my brain attic space has been filled with bikey things. Also, I have busked less this past year than others. I even missed a couple of football game busks which is something of a tragedy as they are usually lucrative.
One of my busking implements.
Pretty much all of my performing these days is in the LRT stations for big events. I like having large crowds funneled past me through the train station corridors. This makes for efficient busking. These locations are controlled by a permit system. I have a permit for the Commonwealth Stadium station and my busking partner has one for the Rexall Place station. Together we can cover a lot of games and concerts. Having a permit is very useful when winter arrives as none but the most desperate of performers would try playing outside on the frozen streets.
Last Saturday night we played for the Edmonton Oiler’s vs Calgary Flames game. Non-local readers will find it helpful to know that there is a strong rivalry between these two Albertan cities and these games are always well attended. We buskers like that. My fingers produced the tunes with little difficulty. As usual I played some cittern and some mandolin. My comrade played guitar and pennywhistle. I tried out a new group of tunes without much faltering. All told, it was a lot of fun. The crowd was indeed large and quite generous on the way in to the game. I credit that to our awesomeness. Did you buy that? No? Well, we ARE awesome but it’s probably more the Christmas spirit at work. Also, the Oilers are finally having a season that isn’t terrible. It turns out that they lost the game and our revenues were predictably diminished for the outgoing crowd. One of the transit cops threw some money in the hat. I like it when that happens. Those folks end up hearing us play for several hours over the course of a event so I’m always happy when they like the music. As often happens, while chucking some coins into the hat one person complimented us and also complained about how bad the drummer is who busks outside using plastic buckets as his instrument. We hear that a lot. Still, he makes enough for it to be worth his while.
There were a few non musical incidents of note. On the incoming crowd a teen walked past who had probably been in a fight. His hand was covered in blood and he had a cut over his eye. He went around the corner towards the area the transit cops were and some time later returned with a bandaged hand. This took a relatively short time so I guess he was OK and security didn’t feel the need to detain him.
On the outgoing crowd we were just starting to play when a young woman came past yelling at a man. He left and she sat down on the floor and began sobbing. At this point, the game wasn’t over yet so the corridor was empty and echoing. I let the happy tune I was playing trail into silence. It didn’t seem appropriate. I fidgeted with my tuner for a few moments and debated going over to her and asking if she needed help. Would she want a scruffy busker weirdo bothering her? I had just decided to go over when she collected herself, took out her cell phone and walked off texting furiously. When busking one will often see these mysterious little glimpses of other people’s lives and almost certainly never learn the whole story.
On a more positive note, one couple stopped and instead of giving us coins they gave us an Oilers’ blanket. In the din of the crowd I couldn’t quite hear what either of them said other than the guy telling me to take good care of the blanket. I agreed to do so. Over the years, we have received some odd textile items in lieu of cash. Most notably (on different occasions) a pair of pants, a hooded sweatshirt, and…a bra.
Last Sunday was a busy day. I picked up a used kid hauling trailer that I lucked into via Kijij (only $10.00!!). The canvas was in terrible shape but since it’s destined for conversion to a cargo trailer that doesn’t matter. I also scored some nice Cinelli and Scott bars at a garage sale for super cheap. While I was gloating over my purchases I almost forgot that I was supposed to meet my busking comrade for the Supertamp concert at Rexall place. When I finally remembered, it was exactly the time that I was supposed to be there. I hurriedly grabbed my instruments, hopped on Nishiki-san and sped off.
The crowd was smaller than I would have expected. I suppose Supertramp’s day has passed. On the bright side, the people that were there were quite appreciative of our playing and were generous. There were a lot of parents with their pre-teen kids. I can see that. Supertramp seems a safe bet if you want to take a kid to a concert and hope to avoid high decibel profanity.
All in all, a pleasant crowd and an easy busk. For the most part my fingers were up to the task. Again, I declined to busk the outgoing crowd even though I expected them to be a very happy bunch.